It's the '60s. The early, innocent Kennedy '60s. No hippies yet, no Vietnam. Well, of course, there was Vietnam; it just didn't register on the American consciousness yet. Modern color has taken some interesting turns: pinks, aquas, teals abound. Women still wear hats -- big hats, crazy hats. America is still run exclusively by stuffy, old white men, and sexism is the code of conduct in the workplace. Good times.
RenÇe Zellweger is Barbara Novak -- small-town Maine girl who has formulated a chocolate-based three-step system of independence for the modern female and called it "Down with Love." By step three, the self-made girl has penetrated the workplace, started a career, and has all the sex she wants without risking falling in love in the process. Simple. If it were 2003, Novak and her pink hardback book would be on Oprah getting told "You go, girl!" until the obvious emotional and biological ramifications of such a philosophy came to pass. As it is not yet the Johnson administration, Novak's ideas are slow to catch on with the stuffed shirts of her publishing house but quick to catch fire among contemporary women. It's not long before Novak is a household name and women everywhere are saying "Down with Love!"
Enter Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), a playboy journalist who specializes in exposÇs and makes the mistake of standing up interviews with Barbara in favor of a series of trysts with a gaggle of flight attendants (separately, not en masse). So incensed is Novak with Block's playboyishness that she humiliates him on TV by naming him as one of "those" men who "change women as often as they change shirts." The result: No woman wants to be with Catcher, since Catcher is a player, and no man wants Barbara because she has liberated women. Catcher devises a plan: He will disguise himself as a chaste Southern gentleman, make Barbara fall in love with him, and then expose her for committing her own worst sin: love. All the while, Block's publisher/best friend Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce) is trying desperately to woo Barbara's editor/best friend Vicki (Sarah Paulson) in a role-reversal of their own -- McMannus wants marriage, Vicki wants sex, as any upright "Down with Love Girl" would.
I hope that the Flyer readership is familiar with last year's stylistic masterpiece, Far from Heaven. That film, a meticulous homage to films of the 1950s (particularly those of melodrama auteur Douglas Sirk), reproduced color palettes, camera angles, music, and a style of acting thought long extinct in order to get to greater truths underneath the artifice. This is the funny version of that same notion, getting to greater laughs by looking through the lens of a defunct point of view -- the bouncy, cocktail-y preamble to the sexual revolution that was the early 1960s. Helen Reddy wouldn't sing "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" for a few more years, but the seeds were planted and sprouting by the end of Kennedy's presidency.
But forget about politics and sociology when trying to enjoy this film, which is as light and colorful as cotton candy. Which is to say, sugary and weightless but fanciful. Down with Love is a confection -- sweet junk food for the mind and heart. Like the Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies that inspired it, Down with Love pokes only the gentlest fun at its source materials -- the end to the crassly sexist 1950s archetype of the working father and the housewife mother, for one -- and sticks to the basics of a good time: mistaken identities, good-hearted deception, and, underneath them all, love.
McGregor and Zellweger both are excellent in the Hudson/Day roles, providing just the right mix of sexy and silly. Both actors are particularly adept at filling roles that require a strong suspension of disbelief from the audience (McGregor in Eye of the Beholder, Moulin Rouge; Zellweger in Nurse Betty, Chicago), and so it is very easy for us to believe what they portray: innocent sex kittens romping about in the '60s. When the movie gets a bit more serious toward the end, it is a little hard to buy into the script, which has them falling into real love -- not just lust -- but this is no fault of the actors, who smile and moon like two teenagers. They are beautiful together, and those fans of their previous, respective musical endeavors will be delighted to know that they sing in this one too. Frasier's David Hyde Pierce shines as the would-be-gay publisher pal, playing the role that Tony Randall would have had opposite Hudson and Day -- and Randall himself appears as a chairman of the board. He has my favorite line: "That pink book is ruining my life!"
Leave the tissues at home, but bring a date -- and chocolate. -- Bo List
Are you there, God? It's me, Bo. A few questions, God. Number one: Why, oh, why did I get that $30 parking ticket in Chicago last week? I was only a few minutes late back to the meter. And, Lord? Dear Lord -- why have I gained back those 10 pounds I so proudly lost over last semester? I haven't been eating that poorly and getting that little exercise lately, have I? And why, Lord, am I romantically unsuccessful? Is it because I actively seek out the depraved, unattainable, or otherwise troublesome? And, God, why am I so po'? Is it because I have chosen a career in the arts and, additionally, cannot manage my money well? Dear God, it's just not fair!
The above is an actual transcript of my nightly prayers. In fact, with the topical exception of the parking ticket, it is repeated night after night, since I always lose and then gain 10 pounds, go on crazy dates (no offense to the notable exceptions in my readership), and waste my money on baubles and fast food (see: weight gain). God's nightly answer? "Free Will, my son. Free Will." My favorite smug response to a complaining friend: "Free Will would have you do something about that." Free Will is a co-star, so to speak, of Bruce Almighty, and the basis of its thin, amusing theology.
Jim Carrey is Bruce Nolan, colorful TV news reporter for a station in Buffalo. He has ambitions of becoming anchor but is relegated to the world of fanciful puff pieces, like Buffalo's biggest cookie or the anniversary of Niagara Falls' "Maiden of the Mist" tour boat. Bruce wants to be covering the big news, and a retiring station mainstay means that a job will be open soon. But Bruce loses it to a snide competitor (and better anchor, by the way) on a very bad day, and even though he generally has things pretty good (Jennifer Aniston is his girlfriend, y'all), Free Will makes him screw it all up by going nuts and calling his colleagues at the station a name that begins with "F" and ends with "ers" during his live broadcast from the Falls. D'oh!
Bruce has a bone to pick with God (Morgan Freeman), and at the end of this bad day, after wrecking his car, he yells at the sky, finally giving Him a piece of his mind. What does God do? He pages Bruce. Yep -- on a pager and summons him down to a strange office building where he offers Bruce a job: God. Yep, Bruce thinks he can do it better? Fine. God's taking a vacation.
Bruce begins his reign as the Almighty a little shakily, freaked out at a nearby diner. Conveniently ordering tomato soup, Bruce summons the verve and omnipotence to part it, Red Sea-style. After this singular sign of godliness, Bruce is ready for the world, doing what every red-blooded American boy would probably do first with His abilities: lifting women's skirts and landing a hot car. Trouble is, Bruce is so self-centered about what he wants in his own life that he neglects his responsibilities as Lord. Example: He pulls the moon closer to make a sexy evening more romantic, never mind the floods he causes in Japan as a result. And he becomes so obsessed with getting that piddling anchor job that he forgets how to be a good boyfriend, ultimately losing his loving girlfriend amid his ambition and Godly distractions. Can he make her keep loving him? There's only one thing Bruce can't do: change Free Will.
Bruce Almighty is a very pleasant return to form for Jim Carrey, after a less-than-dynamic stab at being a dramatic leading man. (Save your sympathy, Free Will had him intentionally star in The Majestic.) This movie is very much in the vein of Liar Liar, wherein mild supernatural elements change the life of a shallow, rubber-faced lout and make him a better man. As always, Carrey overdoes to the point of annoyance. Bruce is already weird and hyper before anything strange happens to him at the start of the film. He would do well to practice for later dramatic attempts by playing real humans in his comedies.
Bruce Almighty, though, does take a dramatic turn at the two-thirds point and could have veered toward maudlin excess, except for some actual real acting by Carrey and Freeman done very simply in a short scene where they just talk to each other. This is refreshing after an hour and a half of Carrey's histrionics and biblical hooliganism. Freeman, always a class act, makes a great God -- and I hope that the real God is as understanding, patient, and forgiving of my misuse of Free Will as Freeman.
Amen. -- BL